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Afghanistan: Karzai's Corruption Comments Could Lead To Cabinet Shakeup

Hamid Karzai (epa) November 16, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- An Afghan trying to resolve a dispute with his neighbor through the country's court system is told by the judge that he must pay a bribe to win a ruling in his favor.

A businessman ordering a truckload of electronics from Pakistan is told by customs officials that he must give them money under the table to avoid excessive customs duties.

A farmer is confronted by a local militia commander, with ties to a parliament deputy, and told that he must pay for "protection" or his crops will be destroyed.

Afghan citizens have been complaining for years about corruption at all levels of government, saying nothing can be done without paying bribes to officials.

'Corruption Rife'

This week, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appeared to take action, criticizing members of his cabinet and deputies in parliament for corruption. He said the problem is so widespread that it is setting back the reconstruction of the country.

But the Afghan president's comments may have deeper political implications. Political insiders have told RFE/RL that changes to Karzai's cabinet could be imminent.

Speaking on November 13 at a conference on rural development, Karzai said, "All politicians in this system have acquired everything -- money, lots of money. God knows, it is beyond the limit. The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen," Karzai said.

"The luxurious houses [built in Afghanistan in the past five years] belong to members of the government and parliament, not only in Kabul, but here and there. Every one of them have three or four houses in different countries."

Although Karzai did not mention any officials by name, he suggested that corruption is particularly rife among those officials who had fled the country -- or who had received support during the last three decades from neighboring Iran, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

"With the support of the world community -- money, aircraft, and their soldiers -- and with the full sympathy of the Afghan people, the Afghan politicians were able to return to their country," Karzai said. "Unfortunately, I see now that they did not learn the lessons of the past. They should know that the Afghan people will rise against us [if corruption continues.] And this time, there will be no place [abroad] for us to flee."

In corruption watchdog Transparency International's 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index, Afghanistan ranked 172nd in the world, with a score of 1.8. The index scores range from 0 (highly corrupt) to 10 (highly clean).

Possible Cabinet Reshuffle

Political analysts -- including government advisers in Kabul -- tell RFE/RL that Karzai's remarks appear to be a reaction to criticisms made earlier this week by the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Khalilzad, who formerly worked as the U.S. ambassador to both Afghanistan and Iraq, has suggested that Karzai should make changes to his "working team" -- which includes some of Karzai's political opponents as well as his allies.

Speaking on November 12 to Afghan and U.S. businesspeople at a conference in Washington, Khalilzad said the United States is concerned about some of the activities of Karzai's political opponents. He said those forces have contributed to corruption, a lack of security, and a daily increase in political competition and rivalry within Afghanistan.

Khalilzad made similar criticisms last month in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, saying that the major barriers to reconstruction in Afghanistan are corruption and a lack of cooperation between authorities responsible for rebuilding the country.

Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University, says the issue of fighting corruption could show how much real power Karzai exercises in Afghanistan.

"It has yet to be seen whether he is able to bring about these kinds of changes -- or if he is able to confront all of those powers that he mentioned," Safi says. "These are not just problems that appeared yesterday. During the last three years, Karzai frequently has been told about the problems of corruption, bribery, and increasing insecurity. But he has done nothing -- as if he was deaf."

In the end, Safi says, Karzai's remarks suggest that the Afghan president is likely to introduce major changes to his cabinet in the near future.

"[Karzai's domestic political position] is very weak. If he doesn't bring changes after this speech, I don't think he will be able to keep his position as president. He must bring about broad and sweeping change to all areas -- to every field -- from top to bottom," Safi says.

Some lawmakers believe that Karzai has no choice but to act now. Mohammad Babur Nafirzada, a member of the Afghan parliament from the northwestern province of Faryab, tells RFE/RL that Karzai's remarks on corruption mean he must either sack some of his government ministers or introduce new reforms.

"President Karzai has acknowledged the presence of corruption inside his government. If he wants reforms in Afghanistan, he must do something after making such a speech. He must do something himself to bring about reforms," Nafirzada says.

Previous anticorruption efforts have achieved little. In March 2004, faced with numerous complaints about corruption and extortion among the Afghan police, the judicial system, public utilities, and even the national airline -- Karzai established an anticorruption department in his administration.

But the head of that department, Ezatullah Wasifi, has been heavily criticized for doing little to control the graft rampant throughout the country.

(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report.)

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